Putting the Pieces Together

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Youthful Talent: Carl E. Smith

Local-born artist-designer Carl E. Smith dons his curator hat with an eye on youthful talent. – By Dana Nichols | Photos by Jody Tiongco

Artist-designer Carl E. Smith works fast and lives fast. Enthusiastically embracing frequent international travel, high fashion and the planet’s best contemporary art fairs, the artist, 36, explores the world as an art-filled playing field of boundless discovery, whether at home in Laguna Beach, where he was born and raised, or his other home in Prague’s Lesser Quarter. Carl has been showcasing his personal collage work and the works of other artists from a Laguna Beach canyon studio since 2010, and this October opens the doors to CES Contemporary gallery on Ocean Avenue across from City Hall. In the new location he takes the back seat as artist and driver’s seat as gallerist to feature monthly programming in an extension of his sophisticated contemporary aesthetic.

“I knew eventually that my goal was to run a gallery; however, I had put a five-year window on it,” Carl says. “This is about three years premature, but it seemed like the right time. I just kept continuing to produce these shows, and it became apparent that I should be doing this in a gallery where people can enjoy it, whether it’s for the sale of art or putting a piece into the right collector’s collection, or the pure desire of mine to share really good art with friends, family and the community.”

He’s following the message of his late father, Eric Smith, whose oft-repeated words, “Continue to continue,” have become so true to the way Carl lives that he has them tattooed on his arm. It’s also the title of CES Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition, an 18-artist group show featuring labor intensive paper and collage work, as well as paintings, by young contemporary artists from Europe and both U.S. coasts.

“I’m excited that he’s coming in,” says Peter Blake, owner of Peter Blake Gallery. “We don’t have galleries that focus on collage. He’s also suited to do this real well because he has an international collection and following; he’s been doing a lot of work in Europe, so he’s going to bring an international presence to Laguna Beach, which is great.”

Sleek Complexity

Earlier this summer, Carl held an impressive solo exhibition of his work, titled “Intra Fashion,” an exploration of the relevance fashion has in our lives. It was the final show at his canyon studio and a very complete and deep look into Carl’s style of collage with 40 pieces exploring beauty, both real and dream-like, in a signature clean aesthetic.

“Carl’s years of experience in advertising and design afford a particular understanding of visual communication that comes through in his work—direct, immediate,” says Yuri Psinakis, 46, an artist and collector whom Carl has known since 2001. “He’s also uniquely economical in his use of materials, images and marks. Even works you might not consider minimal feel light. Also, his facility with and use of the language of advertising (fashion and action sports cultures to name two specific and significant ones) serves to establish a familiar common ground between the work and most viewers—accessible but not dumbed down.”

Among Carl’s most captivating works in Intra Fashion were in the “National Parks” series, thoughtful collages of fashion models in shocking neon and leopard print superimposed over national park photography. The works resonated with the instinct to pit one’s love for grand landscape against sensationalized humanistic beauty. Carl often uses symbols from the natural world—snakes, roses and outer space are all recurring themes—to communicate that a world without beauty is a world without meaning or purpose.

“The three things that I like most are a clean aesthetic, complexity and strong visual appeal—I like pretty, I like elegant, I like beautiful, I like sexy,” Carl says. “I want those qualities in something I’m going to show, sell or buy.” He envisions a second installment of “Intra Fashion” in a year or so, but will primarily show other artists at CES Contemporary in 2012 and 2013.

Carl likes being around people, or what he calls “connecting the dots,” so much that he says the thing he would have enjoyed most about art school—if he had gone—is the dynamic of being around other students. One of his favorite artists right now, who is part of “Continue to Continue,” is Lola Dupré, a 30-year-old collage artist who lives near Coimbra, Portugal. Her fracture-style collages consist of thousands of pieces of paper arranged to make one hypnotic image. “The image itself is not harsh and aggressive, but it’s so complex,” Carl says. “I like art that makes you feel good when you look at it, but I want there to be a second take that gives you a respect for the process. You definitely get a fun first read from the work, but upon further investigation you really can see how much time, effort and integrity has been into putting these pieces together.”

In addition to showing his work at his design studio in the canyon (2012) and doing commercial design, Carl’s work has appeared in solo shows at AR4T Gallery in Laguna Beach (2010), MIM Gallery in San Francisco (2010), Ghettogloss in Los Angeles (2005) and Atelier 1 in Prague (2003). In 2011 his work appeared in group installments at Scion Installation Los Angeles in Culver City, Calif., and The McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco, among others. In 2011 he curated Slash, a 36-artist international survey in collage, which he will repeat at CES Contemporary in summer 2013.

Czech Start

Carl first exhibited in 1998 in Prague, where he had originally come as a 19-year-old traveler, then lived and worked there for seven years. “I started out as the kid who backpacks with a big backpack and goes to every city for three days. I did that for about three weeks, and as soon as I got to Prague everything changed,” Carl says.

With European snowboard industry connections from home in Orange County—he had been doing T-shirt graphics for Volcom since high school—a design job in Prague that subsequently followed was an offer he couldn’t refuse. He soon began to exhibit in small and large galleries and established a design studio, eventually producing group art shows. He hosted just-out-of-high-school kids from the graffiti scene, some of whom are Europe’s most well-known in the genre today. “I was the guy that put them in a gallery, in most cases, for the first time ever,” he says. “I tend to think I have a good eye, and I know how to make good picks, and I’m untested in those waters right now in California.”

Youth Movement

Carl’s aim for CES Contemporary is to fill a gap in Laguna Beach’s contemporary art scene “geographically and stylistically” by bringing in European and American talent between the ages of 18 and 45. “I think it’s going to be special for Laguna to see what current exhibiting artists are doing at a young age,” he says. “These are artists that have excelled within museums and in collector circles; they haven’t done everything yet, but they are semi-established and definitely emerging, and have the accolades and the experience within the last five years to prove it.”

Visitors can expect to see works by an artist who exhibited in a two-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and another who is showing for the first time in a gallery setting. “I think it’s going to be an extraordinary experience for residents and art enthusiasts from Laguna to see art that’s completely relevant on the international contemporary art scene, done by people that are typically two generations younger than most of the artists showing in galleries in Laguna,” Carl says.

In addition to spending about three months a year in Prague, he spends one month in New York and also travels across the map to PULSE, Scope and Frieze contemporary art fairs, among others, to pore over the scene. “I’ve seen more art than I have in my entire lifetime within the last two years,” he says. “I’m living it and eating it and breathing it. Everything I do is consumed by it.”

At home in Laguna Beach, he is raising his son, Sean, a first grader, with his wife Simona. “I wanted to bring my son up in an environment that was familiar to me and that I also thought was healthy for him,” says Carl, who likes the small town feel as well as being 45 minutes from Los Angeles, to which he makes frequent trips. “I think a lot of kids that grow up here realize that it’s a very special place on the planet.”

Carl has fond memories of attending art shows with his dad, who worked in law and real estate and always dreamed of being an art dealer. From his very first graphics commissions, Carl found his biggest supporter in his dad. “He was so enthusiastic about me being involved in the art scene,” Carl says. “He always said ‘Continue to continue’ as a form of praise or encouragement to keep doing what you’re doing. I’m continuing to do what I’ve done the last 15 years of my life, and it’s evolved into this gallery. This is the culmination of all those things between us, but it’s also the starting point of something very new.” LBM

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